Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead Miami was being billed as the race that would finally give us the last lap shootout that every fan has been wanting to see. Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick entered the race with only 46 points separating them at the top of the Chase standings with all three looking to take home the 2010 Sprint Cup title.
The sport had been waiting for four years for someone to take the crown from Jimmie Johnson and after he stumbled in the eighth race of the Chase at Texas, Sunday at Miami was going to be the day. Denny Hamlin entered the race with a slim 15- point lead that put Johnson in unfamiliar territory of entering the final race without being in the lead. He wasn’t going to be going to Miami just to defend his lead, this time he was going to have to lay it all on the line if he wanted his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title.
Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus didn’t wait until they arrived at the track on Friday to start laying the groundwork for their come-from-behind title run. Every interview of the two during the week oozed with a level of confidence that you would expect from a driver-crew chief combination that had four championship rings apiece. The same couldn’t be said about Hamlin and his crew chief Mike Ford.
When Hamlin got out of the car last week at Phoenix after a rough day that saw his lead over Johnson cut from 33 to 15 points, the strain of running for his first-ever title against the defending champion showed in every interview. He spoke like a driver that had just lost the title instead of one that was entering the final race with a 15-point lead.
Harvick, on the other hand, was just close enough to still be considered in the title hunt but still far enough out that he was considered a long shot. That, along with enough points to keep him in third place regardless of where he finished, left him and his crew very loose and eager to see the green flag drop on Sunday.
Three drivers with three very diff erent mindsets took the green flag on Sunday, but the eagerly awaited slugfest never really took place as the three never really got in a position to race each other for the title. Hamlin slipped first as he spun out on lap 24 after contact with Greg Biffle. His problems continued as he got a lap down after a cycle of pit stops. He eventually got back on the lead lap after a wave around but had to start at the rear of the field. Ford also dropped the ball when his call for a pit stop came too late. These problems now had him racing Harvick for second instead of racing for his first-ever title.
Harvick saw any chance he had of gaining the top spot disappear when he was called for speeding coming on to pit road. Once he got back on the track he quickly started working his way back up through the field for a third-place finish, but even that wasn’t good enough as Johnson won his fifth consecutive title run by finishing second to race winner Carl Edwards.
The second-place race finish didn’t come easy for Johnson as, like the other two contenders, his day didn’t always go smooth. He had trouble on a couple of his pit stops that saw him lose track position, but the changes made on his Chevrolet during those pit stops allowed him to work his way back up to the front after each stop.
This had to be the toughest of his five titles, but in many ways this title run by Johnson and Knaus shows that beneath those Lowe’s uniforms beats the hearts of champions. Sure they have a swagger that many fans don’t like, but make no mistake, they have earned their swagger and until somebody can break their hold on the title, they own the sport.
That brings the question of just what drivers might challenge the two for the top spot next season. Carl Edwards seems to now be the anointed one to try and dethrone Johnson after finishing the season with two consecutive wins, but capturing a title is so much more than just wins. It is hard not to believe that Johnson and Knaus will be satisfied with “just” five, I bet somewhere this week they have sat down and had a conversation that included, “Why not six?”